AMPPR: Host Interviewing Tips

The following tips are excerpted from materials shared by David Srebnik and Cynthia May at the 2008 meeting of AMPPR (Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio). All tips are from experienced network news hosts.

Susan Stamberg (Special Correspondent, NPR)

  • Listening to answers is more important than asking the question.
  • Best question is often the simplest: WHY?
  • Prepare in advance as if your life depended on it.
  • Think, in advance, of what you want to get out of the interview.
  • Think of the beginning, middle and end of the interview — make your questions related, not random.

Neal Conan (Host, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”)

  • Only ask one question at a time… ask two, and they’ll just answer the one they like.
  • Come prepared with questions, but LISTEN to the guest, who will often tell you what the next question should be.
  • Try to structure your interview so it has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation.
  • There is a difference between live and taped interviews, and between host interviews and reporter interviews.
  • Live/host: always start with the most interesting question.
  • Taped/reporter: begin with a “waist high fastball” to allow the guest to deliver the message he/she wants, THEN get to the interesting stuff.

Lynn Neary (Correspondent, NPR)

  • The key to a good interview is listening
  • Don’t be afraid to ask a dumb question… sometimes they yield the best answers… but be careful with this one, you don’t want your guest to think you are not too bright or ill-prepared… maybe just a little “naive.” (Terry Gross is a master at this. You know she walks into an interview better prepared than anyone and then asks one of these disarming little questions that just makes a guest open up.)
  • Which of course, brings us to preparation. I used to have a quote above my desk: “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”
  • You need to know a lot about the guest and then act like you don’t know that much and then, when you hear something new, be ready to jump on it.
  • The interview is not about you, it is about the guest.
  • Bring real curiosity to the table. There is no substitute.

Robert Siegel (Host, NPR’s “All Things Considered”)

  • Listen to what the person you’re interviewing says. She may answer one of your other questions & make it unnecessary. More important, he may say something much more interesting than you had anticipated, something worth dwelling on for a couple of questions.
  • Be prepared to dump the questions you walked in with if the conversation develops in an interesting way.
  • Arm yourself with quotations about the interviewee. You can put outrageous statements to him/her, provided they’re attributed to someone else.

Kai Ryssdal (Host, APM’s “Marketplace”)

  • Rule number one for me is preparation. Know everything you can — or everything you have time to study — about what or who the subject of the interview is.
  • Personality is so important. So I guess rule number two is let a bit of yourself come through.
  • Finally, I think the warm-up is under-rated. Whether it’s in person or in the studio or on an ISDN, spending even a little time chatting with the interviewee beforehand can really pay off. It sets them at ease and it lets them get a glimpse of you as a person before they have to interact with you ‘professionally.’